DG Digital – Is Post-Ideologic Technocracy the Way?

There is talk around Place Lux and Schuman that the new Commission should appoint a DG Digital to ensure that the digital perspective is represented in EU policy. But what is the digital perspective?

There are two competing views on how to describe and understand digital networks. (A little simplified, sure, but bear with me.) One is the idea that digital technology is an outside force that cannot and should not be stopped or interfered with. We can call this techno-centrism – it has many evangelists, one prime example is Kevin Kelly (author of What Technology Wants and much more).The other view, let’s call it techno-scepticism, rather sees the technology as a consequence of human decisions, conflicting business interests, regulation and such. Thinkers like Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov are perhaps the most prominent representatives of this idea. Which of the two perspectives you prefer has fundamental implications for policy. It should also come as no surprise that Netopia subscribes to the techno-sceptic view.

In techno-centrism, the future is predictable and inevitable. Moore’s law is a force of nature, every 18-months or so capacities of processing, storing and transferring data doubles and everything else that happens is a consequence of this constant evolution. Resistance is futile, we can only adjust our systems, habits and institutions to the change, not influence them. This is what net activists mean when they talk about “understanding” new technology, that is embracing the idea that technological evolution is a force unto itself and stronger than other forces. Thus the phrase “new technology cannot be stopped” makes sense and can be used as an argument on plenty of different topics. You may think that this could all be true, while at the same time being sceptical and trying to control or influence the development, but according to techno-centrism, there is always a reason such attempts will be fruitless – perhaps if we don’t do it, the Chinese will. Or innovation will make legislation irrelevant. Or hackers will break the firewall. Or something else, the point is that human effort is inferior to technology. The title of Kelly’s book is telling: Technology has a will of its own. We are its mere tools. This is where such concepts as “market disruption” are born: regardless of current regulation, hierarchies, functions or agreements, technology will come and tear it apart. The ultimate sin is to stick to an outdated business model, whether you’re in advertising, logistics, travel, hotels, transportation, finance, content, health care, security, agriculture or pretty much any field, you better adjust to the new ways or perish.

In techno-centrism, good policy is anything that speeds up development and adaptation of digital technology, and bad policy is anything that interferes with it (data protection, tax enforcement, criminal investigation, copyright, local legislation). The concept of network neutrality that is so popular in the EU these days, is a prime example of techno-centric policy: the only feasible legislation is such that secures non-interference with the technology. Techno-centrism promises many great things: freedom of speech for all, access to a global audience and all the culture in the world, spreading democracy, economic growth, fixing hunger, energy and possibly climate change, empowering the consumer, overthrowing outdated institutions and hierarchies. Even eternal life. We can have all this, if only we stop fighting against the inevitable progress.

Techno-centrism has difficulties with surveillance (NSA/GCHQ but also big data businesses), privacy, tax evasion, cybercrime, child pornography (and other Darknet phenomena like drug trade, contract killers, black market organs, threatened animals, trafficking etc), money laundering, fair competition (power concentration and abuse of dominant position) and such, but those problems are always the consequence of (a) government intervention, (b) uneducated user/consumers or (c) will be fixed with better technology (which will inevitably come, just be patient), thus confirming the doctrine that technology itself is always the answer.

With the techno-centric understanding of digital technology, a DG Digital would be tasked with repeating the maxim: “don’t mess with digital tech, everything will be fine except if you mess it up by trying to intervene”. (In fact, why not put that on a framed embroidery in every meeting room in all EU institutions and save the tax payers some money on the Director General’s wages?)

Techno-scepticism on the other hand, acknowledges technology as an influential force, but one among others. Economy, law, individual decisions, human preference, ideology and many other factors are also in play. Jaron Lanier sees Moore’s law as an inspiration for R&D-departments rather than an outside force. He mocks the religious aspects of techno-centrism. The techno-centric buzzwords are rather slogans to protect the business interests of a few Silicon Valley outfits, who compete just as much with each other using patents, marketing, lobbying, geo-political influence and other old-world forces of power as weapons. What technologies are adopted by the users may be just as much a consequence of marketing budgets, flashy design, PR-stunts, celebrity endorsements and chance, as the quality of the service. To techno-sceptics, there is not a single, right and inevitable way that technology can develop, but many different possibilities. Which ones end up winning (or rather being temporary top dogs, because techno-sceptics believe most things change with time) depends on things like competing standards (remember VHS vs Beta?), government investment and intervention, litigation in patent and competition cases, black swans, trends in public taste, competition from emerging markets, the battle for power between the Silicon Valley-giants, butter-fly effects, the economy’s boom- and bust-cycles (or perhaps they think that concept is too simplistic?), whims by CEOs, policy-makers, and you and me. And many other factors… actually techno-sceptics probably believe the list is endless. To techno-sceptics, “the internet” is a misnomer because there are many different digital networks with different functions, priorities and set-ups, it can not be regarded as a unified technology and it certainly does not want anything in particular.

Techno-sceptics (including this writer!) also enjoy reminding techno-centrics that the internet was invented by the US military (and TOR more specific by the US Navy) and that dictators love to work in tandem with telecoms and internet services to weed out dissidents. The techno-sceptics’ main issue is that they look like bores and have no snappy one-liners on things like growth, hunger and climate change, rather pointing to complexity than simplicity. They also run the risk of being tempted to embrace everything techno-critical message as a truth (thus becoming techno-critics, who are much more dogmatic than –sceptics).

But if the DG Digital were to be a techno-sceptic, what would he or she do? Say “It’s complicated”? You can get that on Facebook!